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Edmund Severn

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The Left Hand

Edmund Severn's activity in the field of violin music is a three-fold one: he is a composer, an interpreting artist and a teacher, and his fortuitous control of the three vital phases of his Art make his views as regards its study of very real value. The lover of string music in general would naturally attach more importance to his string quartet in

D major, his trio for violin, 'cello and piano, his violin concerto in D

minor, the sonata, the "Oriental," "Italian," "New England" suites for

violin, and the fine suite in A major, for two violins and piano, than

to his symphonic poems for orchestra, his choral works and his songs.

And those in search of hints to aid them to master the violin would be

most interested in having the benefit of his opinions as a teacher,

founded on long experience and keen observation. Since Mr. Severn is

one of those teachers who are born, not made, and is interested heart

and soul in this phase of his musical work, it was not difficult to draw

him out.



The Joachim Bowing

"My first instructor in the violin was my father, the pioneer violin

teacher of Hartford, Conn., where my boyhood was passed, and then I

studied with Franz Milcke and Bernard Listemann, concertmaster of the

Boston Symphony Orchestra. But one day I happened to read a few lines

reprinted in the _Metronome_ from some European source, which quoted

Wilhelmj as saying that Emanuel Wirth, Joachim's first assistant at the

Berlin _Hochschule_, 'was the best teacher of his generation.' This was

enough for me: feeling that the best could be none too good, I made up

my mind to go to him. And I did. Wirth was the viola of the Joachim

Quartet, and probably a better teacher than was Joachim himself. Violin

teaching was a cult with him, a religion; and I think he believed God

had sent him to earth to teach fiddle. Like all the teachers at the

_Hochschule_ he taught the regular 'Joachim' bowing--they were obliged

to teach it--as far as it could be taught, for it could not be taught

every one. And that is the real trouble with the 'Joachim' bowing. It is

impossible to make a general application of it.


"Joachim had a very long arm and when he played at the point of the bow

his arm position was approximately the same as that of the average

player at the middle of the bow. Willy Hess was a perfect exponent of

the Joachim method of bowing. Why? Because he had a very long arm. But

at the _Hochschule_ the Joachim bowing was compulsory: they taught, or

tried to teach, all who came there to use it without exception; boys or

girls whose arms chanced to be long enough could acquire it, but big men

with short arms had no chance whatever. Having a medium long arm, by

dint of hard work I managed to get my bowing to suit Wirth; yet I always

felt at a disadvantage at the point of the bow, in spite of the fact

that after my return to the United States I taught the Joachim bowing

for fully eight years.


"Then, when he first came here, I heard and saw Ysaye play, and I

noticed how greatly his bowing differed from that of Joachim, the point

being that his first finger was always in a position to press

_naturally_ without the least stiffness. This led me to try to find a

less constrained bowing for myself, working along perfectly natural

lines. The Joachim bowing demands a high wrist; but in the case of the

Belgian school an easy position at the point is assumed naturally. And

it is not hard to understand that if the bow be drawn parallel with the

bridge, allowing for the least possible movement of hands and wrist, the

greatest economy of motion, there is no contravention of the laws of

nature and playing is natural and unconstrained.


"And this applies to every student of the instrument, whether or no he

has a long arm. While I was studying in Berlin, Sarasate played there in

public, with the most natural and unhampered grace and freedom in the

use of his bow. Yet the entire _Hochschule_ contingent unanimously

condemned his bowing as being 'stiff'--merely because it did not conform

to the Joachim tradition. Of course, there is no question but that

Joachim was the greatest quartet player of his time; and with regard to

the interpretation of the classics he was not to be excelled. His

conception of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms was wonderful. The

insistence at the _Hochschule_ on forcing the bowing which was natural

to him on all others, irrespective of physical adaptability, is a matter

of regret. Wirth was somewhat deficient in teaching left hand technic,

as compared with, let us say, Schradieck. Wirth's real strength lay in

his sincerity and his ability to make clear the musical contents of the

works of the great masters. In a Beethoven or Spohr concerto he made a

pupil give its due emphasis to every single note.





"Before the violin student can even begin to study, there are certain

pre-teaching requisites which are necessary if the teacher is to be of

any service to him. The violin is a singing instrument, and therefore

the first thing called for is a good singing tone. That brings up an

important point--the proper adjustment of the instrument used by the

student. If his lessons are to be of real benefit to him, the component

parts of the instrument, post, bridge, bass-bar, strings, etc., must be

accurately adjusted, in order that the sound values are what they should



"From the teaching standpoint it is far more important that whatever

violin the student has is one properly built and adjusted, than that it

be a fine instrument. And the bow must have the right amount of spring,

of elasticity in its stick. A poor bow will work more harm than a poor

fiddle, for if the bow is poor, if it lacks the right resilience, the

student cannot acquire the correct bow pressure. He cannot play

_spiccato_ or any of the 'bouncing' bowings, including various forms of

arpeggios, with a poor stick.





"When I say that the student should 'draw a long bow,'" continued Mr.

Severn with a smile, "I do not say so at a venture. If his instrument

and bow are in proper shape, this is the next thing for the student to

do. Ever since Tartini's time it has been acknowledged that nothing can

take the place of the study of the long bow, playing in all shades of

dynamics, from _pp_ to _ff_, and with all the inflections of _crescendo_

and _diminuendo_. Part of this study should consist of 'mute'

exercises--not playing, but drawing the bow _above the strings_, to its

full length, resting at either end. This ensures bow control. One great

difficulty is that as a rule the teacher cannot induce pupils to

practice these 'mute' exercises, in spite of their unquestionable value.

All the great masters of the violin have used them. Viotti thought so

highly of them that he taught them only to his favorite pupils. And even

to-day some distinguished violinists play dumb exercises before stepping

on the recital stage. They are one of the best means that we have for

control of the violinistic nervous system.





"Wrist-bowing is one of the bowings in which the student should learn to

feel absolutely and naturally at home. To my thinking the German way of

teaching wrist-bowing is altogether wrong. Their idea is to keep the

fingers neutral, and let the stick move the fingers! Yet this is

wrong--for the player holds his bow at the finger-tips, that terminal

point of the fingers where the tactile nerves are most highly developed,

and where their direct contact with the bow makes possible the greatest

variety of dynamic effect, and also allows the development of far

greater speed in short bowings.


"Though the Germans say 'Think of the wrist!' I think with the Belgians:

Put your mind where you touch and hold the bow, concentrate on your

fingers. In other words, when you make your bow change, do not make it

according to the Joachim method, with the wrist, but in the natural way,

with the fingers always in command. In this manner only will you get the

true wrist motion.





"After all, there are only two general principles in violin playing, the

long and short bow, _legato_ and staccato. Many a teacher finds it

very difficult to teach _staccato_ correctly, which may account for the

fact that many pupils find it hard to learn. The main reason is that, in

a sense, _staccato_ is opposed to the nature of the violin as a singing

instrument. To produce a true _staccato_ and not a 'scratchato' it is

absolutely necessary, while exerting the proper pressure and movement,

to keep the muscles loose. I have evolved a simple method for quickly

achieving the desired result in _staccato_. First I teach the attack in

the middle of the bow, without drawing the bow and as though pressing a

button: I have pupils press up with the thumb and down with the first

finger, with all muscles relaxed. This, when done correctly, produces a

sudden sharp attack.


"Then, I have the pupil place his bow in the middle, in position to draw

a down-stroke from the wrist, the bow-hair being pressed and held

against the string. A quick down-bow follows with an immediate release

of the string. Repeating the process, use the up-stroke. The finished

product is merely the combination of these two exercises--drawing and

attacking simultaneously. I have never failed to give a pupil a good

_staccato_ by this exercise, which comprises the principle of all

genuine _staccato_ playing.


"One of the most difficult of all bowings is the simple up-and-down

stroke used in the second Kreutzer _Ètude_, that is to say, the bowing

between the middle and point of the bow, _tÍte d'archet_, as the French

call it. This bowing is played badly on the violin more often than any

other. It demands constant rapid changing and, as most pupils play it,

the _legato_ quality is noticeably absent. Too much emphasis cannot be

laid on the truth that the 'singing stroke' should be employed for all

bowings, long or short. Often pupils who play quite well show a want of

true _legato_ quality in their tone, because there is no connection

between their bowing in rapid work.


"Individual bowings should always be practiced separately. I always

oblige my pupils to practice all bowings on the open strings, and in all

combinations of the open strings, because this allows them to

concentrate on the bowing itself, to the exclusion of all else; and they

advance far more quickly. Students should never be compelled to learn

new bowings while they have to think of their fingers at the same time:

we cannot serve two masters simultaneously! All in all, bowing is most

important in violin technic, for control of the bow means much toward

mastery of the violin.





"It is evident, however, that the correct use of the left hand is of

equal importance. It seems not to be generally known that

finger-pressure has much to do with tone-quality. The correct poise of

the left hand, as conspicuously shown by Heifetz for instance, throws

the extreme tips of the fingers hammerlike on the strings, and renders

full pressure of the string easy. Correctly done, a brilliance results,

especially in scale and passage work, which can be acquired in no other

manner, each note partaking somewhat of the quality of the open string.

As for intonation--that is largely a question of listening. To really

listen to oneself is as necessary as it is rare. It would take a volume

to cover that subject alone. We hear much about the use of the _vibrato_

these days. It was not so when I was a student. I can remember when it

was laughed at by the purists as an Italian evidence of bad taste. My

teachers decried it, yet if we could hear the great players of the past,

we would be astonished at their frugal use of it.


"One should remember in this connection that there was a conflict among

singers for many years as to whether the straight tone as cultivated by

the English oratorio singers, or the vibrated tone of the Italians were

correct. As usual, Nature won out. The correctly vibrated voice

outlasted the other form of production, thus proving its lawful basis.

But to-day the _vibrato_ is frequently made to cover a multitude of

violin sins.


"It is accepted by many as a substitute for genuine warmth and it is

used as a _camouflage_ to 'put over' some very bad art in the shape of

poor tone-quality, intonation and general sloppiness of technic. Why,

then, has it come into general use during the last twenty-five years?

Simply because it is based on the correctly produced human voice. The

old players, especially those of the German school, said, and some still

say, the _vibrato_ should only be used at the climax of a melody. If we

listen to a Sembrich or a Bonci, however, we hear a vibration on every

tone. Let us not forget that the violin is a singing instrument and that

even Joachim said: 'We must imitate the human voice,' This, I think,

disposes of the case finally and we must admit that every little boy or

girl with a natural _vibrato_ is more correct in that part of his

tone-production than many of the great masters of the past. As the Negro

pastor said: 'The world do move!'





"Are 'mastery of the violin' and 'Violin Mastery' synonymous in my mind?

Yes and no: 'Violin Mastery' may be taken to mean that technical mastery

wherewith one is enabled to perform any work in the entire literature of

the instrument with precision, but not necessarily with feeling for its

beauty or its emotional content. In this sense, in these days of

improved violin pedagogy, such mastery is not uncommon. But 'Violin

Mastery' may also be understood to mean, not merely a cold though

flawless technic, but its living, glowing product when used to express

the emotions suggested by the music of the masters. This latter kind of

violin mastery is rare indeed.


"One who makes technic an end travels light, and should reach his

destination more quickly. But he whose goal is music with its

thousand-hued beauties, with its call for the exertion of human and

spiritual emotion, sets forth on a journey without end. It is plain,

however, that this is the only journey worth taking with the violin as a

traveling companion. 'Violin Mastery', then, means to me technical

proficiency used to the highest extent possible, for artistic ends!"









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